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So many people come today; I almost feel important. I scan their faces, feeling strangely calm as I study their features. People I know, people I don’t. They’ve all come—woken themselves, gotten dressed, and stepped outside—to see the spectacle.
At the very back of the crowd, from this height, I can see her. She’s always dressed the same, ever since I was little. Raggedy jeans and some dingy T-shirt she couldn’t bring herself to let go of, with equally worn flannel hiding its stains. I remember how she’d shove her long bangs away from her face constantly, only cutting it once in my lifetime, and hating it almost immediately.
Now, it is longer than I’ve ever seen it. She dresses nicely, in an ensemble I haven’t seen since her sister’s first wedding. Even from here, I can see that she’s applied makeup—a miracle, to say the least. But that’s to be expected. Tragedies are known for bringing miracles, after all.
I can’t tell if she sees me. I don’t know if I want her to. It’s been a minute since I last looked into a mirror, and I don’t know if I’m ready to see myself on her face. Don’t know if I’ll ever be.
The officer loops the rope around my neck, and he looks disgusted with me. But that’s okay. It stings, but it’s okay, because even though he knew me before I left, he’s not her.
That officer doesn’t know who I used to be; he can only know the outlines of the dark-haired kid with the dust-caked face. He never bathed me, never scrubbed that dust into mud, never washed it away with the same stroke. He didn’t wash out the grass stains in the knees of my jeans, never sent me out for groceries, or sighed in exasperation when I spent half of the money on candy. I know for a fact that, until now, he has never looked me in the eyes. I don’t know what he sees now, but I don’t care. Whatever there is, he can’t see what’s been lost, because he never knew it.
But she knows, so I’m grateful that I can’t see where her eyes are pointed. Right now, she keeps her head down. I watch as some lady—probably Mrs. Carver—walks over to her, says something. When she makes the mistake of placing her hand on Nell’s back, she’s met with a slap. Mrs. Carver’s figure kinda stiffens up, and I see her head whip around, probably looking for witnesses. Some people are looking directly at them, it looks like. But no one moves. Nell keeps her face down. Her bangs cover her eyes almost completely, and she just lets them.
A pebble is flung into my shoulder. I look at the kid who flung it. It’s Kim Wilson, and even when I look at her, she keeps tossing the rocks at me. They sting, but I say nothing. If this is her vengeance, then let her have it, poor kid. I did something awful; I won’t deny that. I’ve hurt a lot of people. I’m getting what I deserve.
But I look at Nell, dressed so nice with her head hung low, and she’s the one thing that could make me want to fight, somehow break my cuffs, slip my head from the noose, knock that officer off the platform, and run for my life. She’s the only thing I might want to live for. But I know that even that won’t bring her happiness.
No, to do that, I’d have to turn back time. If I could do that, I’d have a multitude of opportunities to fix everything. I could stop myself from shoplifting, any one of the times I did it. I could rid my younger self of those terrible friends who dared me to do everything. Or I could just stop myself from accepting that one dare, that one that changed everything.
Shaking down that poor old man—I want to say I didn’t know what I was thinking, but I know perfectly well what was running through my head. I was broke, and his wallet looked fat, and my friends were watching.
I wonder if they’re watching now, but I don’t look for them. Pebbles pelt me, and they feel like they’re getting bigger.
Nell’s moved further back, it looks like. The distance between us feels so familiar, even though it’s filled with strangers. She'd always liked to put air between us, when I was being rotten. When I was yelling about something stupid, like how come she couldn’t get a better job, and why’d she choose for us to be broke. Throwing things, sometimes through windows. Punching holes into our cheap walls. When I finally left, left to “make something of myself” (a homeless bum is what I made), I’m sure I saved her life, and I’m just as sure I shattered whatever was left of her heart.
I watch her limbs sag toward the dirt ground. Her hair seems to get longer as the day gets hotter.
Noon is near; I can feel the sun start to center on my scalp, almost as clearly as I can feel the rocks hit my chest. Kim Wilson begins to sob, and her throws start to hit me harder. The harder she cries, the harder they hit. More people come, even in this heat, to see the spectacle. I keep on looking at Nell, praying she doesn’t look back, all the while missing her face.
It was all I wanted to see. It was all I wanted to see when I dragged myself back home, a prodigal son who’d finally, finally learned his lesson. A man reverted to a boy, ready to start over. I wanted to knock on my mother’s door, see her in her flannel and jeans, and say I was sorry. I wanted to piece her heart back together, revive the son she’d known and loved, that dirty little kid, so happy just to be alive, knowing nothing of money or violence. I was so close to starting over.
But it was night when I almost made it home, and someone asked me if I needed directions, and when I said no, they got closer and asked if I was sure. And when I said I was sure and was trying to figure out if I knew them, they jumped me and punched me and threatened to kill me with their knife if I didn’t give up what I had, and they didn’t believe me when I said I had absolutely nothing, so they really got ready to kill me. And I was so close to being home, so, so close to starting over, I guess I figured that one last sin was alright. One last sin, to have the chance to really repent. It was one I’d never committed before, but in a desperate situation like that, I didn’t think I had a choice.
So I fought, and I beat him. And I didn’t stop beating him, couldn’t stop, because what if I thought he was out, and he was just faking? What if I let up, and he took the blade and shanked me and left me for dead? He was a stranger; he was just like that old man. It was too dark to see his face, and he stood in my way of getting what I needed. So I beat him to death, and I dragged his body just outside of town, and as the sun came up, I saw his face.
Brian Wilson, my old buddy. Brian Wilson, who had dared me to rob that first stranger. Brian Wilson, Kim Wilson’s older brother, who was helplessly broke and the only guardian of that poor girl. He really didn’t know who he’d jumped, and I guess he never will.
But someone saw me, and they found him not much later, so though I ran, I got caught before I made it home. This is the last I’ll ever see of Nell.
The sun beats down the center of my head. The rocks are the size of my fist, now, and Kim Wilson is screaming. Someone tries to hold her back, but she’s in an absolute fit. I don’t think an apology will make it any better, so I keep my mouth shut and hope she can see the regret in my face.
The officer announces that it’s time. Some people clap, but the crowd grows otherwise silent. I stare at Nell, terrified she may finally look up. But she doesn’t.
The noose tightens around my neck; the officer heads toward the lever. I keep my eyes fixed on Nell. She’s dressed so nice today, wearing makeup and everything, but she lets her hair cover her face. This is the last I’ll ever see of her.
The officer grips the lever, and I feel his eyes cast down upon me, though I don’t know what he expects to see. I don’t know what any of them are here to see, really. I don’t care. My eyes never leave Nell, never move from her hung head. If she looks now, I may miss it.
Kim Wilson screams something about how this is what I get. The officer asks if I have any last words. There are so many eyes on me, but none of them matter.
She has to look up, now. She has to.
“I said, any last words, son?”
She keeps her eyes on the dirt.
“This is what you get, you murderer!!”
Her hair is so long, her dress so nice—
“A silent death it is, then.”
He pulls the lever, her head is hung—
“Look at me, damn it!!”
And the last thing I see is the faint figure of her painted face.